I never saw Oliver and Company when I was a kid but I remember seeing the trailer for it whenever we watched a Disney film on VHS. Every time I saw it I wanted to watch it but it never happened. Probably because I’d get too distracted by whatever Disney film I was going to watch. It always looked really fun and, as someone who loved dogs, I was obviously into the idea of Oliver Twist being remade with animals. I mean if The Lion King has taught us anything it’s that taking a piece of great literature and retelling it with animals is a great strategy for storytelling. I mean who’d even heard of Hamlet before Disney introduced us to Simba, right? Plus, there is a whole host of Disney films that prove that dogs and/or cats having adventures together is an instant winner. I’m not a big fan of Dickens anyway so I couldn’t imagine how it could get any worse by involving household pets.
Oliver and Company is Disney’s retelling of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist but the gang of pickpockets becomes stray dogs and Oliver becomes a kitten lost in the big city. The mismatched group of dogs work for Fagan, a petty thief who owes money to the dangerous loan shark Sykes. Initially taking his place on the team, Oliver is rescued by the daughter of a wealthy man. Realising this, Fagin comes up with a scheme to ransom the cat in order to pay off his debts. To say I spent over 20 years wanting to see this film I can’t say it was worth it. This certainly isn’t classic Disney and is hardly a memorable masterpiece. I mean the film is only just over an hour-long and the story is so predictable that it’s a little bit painful. I realise that it’s a kid’s story but that doesn’t mean it has to be quite so mindless, right? I mean this is “girl meets cat, girl loses cat, girl gets cat back’ with some bonus sequences of dog’s stealing things.
But with Disney films a lacklustre story isn’t always the worst thing in the world. If there is enough other stuff going on then even the most unoriginal tale becomes something fresh and exciting. However, everything that makes Disney animations so great is, again, lacking here. The animation is hardly up there with the studios greatest so none of the characters really stand out in any way. You just don’t feel as emotionally connected with these dogs and cats. I will concede that the backdrop of New York City is realised quite well but it seems that the heart and soul were are used to got lost in the hustle and bustle.
In an attempt to work with the New York vibe of the film, Disney have hired a bunch of voice actors to highlight the city cool. It’s weird, looking back now, that there was a time anyone was eager to get Billy Joel to voice one of the main characters in a children’s animated film. I can’t say there is anything remarkable about any of the voice performances apart from Bette Midler as a narcissistic show-Poodle. Even she isn’t enough to say this because the characters are poorly realised and based on such awful stereotypes. There is a great amount of singing talent here but Oliver and Company really lacks any catchy tunes for them to get their teeth into. It’s all just very disappointing.
Considering this films comes from the same studio that gave us timeless classics like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, Oliver and Company really does feel like it lacks any real effort. I mean, in the long-run, it’s hardly offensive and it’s not as if kids won’t have fun with it. It’s just that it could have been so much better. The narrative is too episodic and disjointed, the characters are mostly uninspiring, and the animation is just lacking in sophistication. Disney have done better adaptations and much better cat and dog films. If you really want to see a version of Dickens’ classic on-screen then just watch the 1968 adaptation, Oliver! Even if it is over twice as long.